A 1973 Pontiac GTO restoration that got by with a little h

Friends gather to fulfill a childhood dream

A hook, of sorts, was set for Mike Pudsey in 1977, when he was just 13 years old. It was the age that Mike recalls really starting to be interested in cars, and he assigns a certain Pontiac as contributing greatly to that awareness. A friend’s mother owned a ’73 Le Mans Sport Coupe, and Mike recalls thinking the styling was really great, what with the louvered rear quarter windows, Rally II wheels, bucket seats, console, etc. You can see where this one is going, can’t you?

Fast-forward eight years to 1985, and Mike is now a 21-year-old, on a drive near his hometown of Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. A car in someone’s front yard had a “For Sale” sign in it, and Mike was immediately interested. It appeared much like the memorable Le Mans of his youth, yet it was trimmed differently, and Mike stopped for a look. What he found was a ’73 GTO, a one-owner car in good original condition. “Wally Palmer had bought the GTO brand-new at the Jim Patterson dealership in Vancouver, and it was virtually untouched, with a great interior, and minimal rust,” says Mike.

We don’t need to explain that Mike quickly came to financial terms with Palmer, but, after doing so, he drove the car for less than a year before deciding to preserve it for a future restoration. Like a typical guy in his early 20s, Mike moved a number of times as he was still in the midst of establishing his career and direction in life, and the GTO always got dragged along. This complicated those moves to the point that Mike considered selling it on a couple of occasions, but we’re happy to say that his better sense always prevailed.

By the early 2000s, Mike’s GTO was still little more than a project waiting its turn when he and his wife Crystal had an earnest conversation about the car’s future. “My wife gave me the green light to do the GTO, and she knew that meant it would be an ‘all-in’ effort. It’s just the way I am—all or nothing.”

So, for the next five years, Mike was on an NOS parts hunt for the rare ’73, and also making important connections to determine who would be involved in the restoration. Some years earlier, Crystal’s dad Richard had taken a job at the local Pontiac/Buick/GMC dealership, the same dealership where Crystal and Mike had their own daily drivers serviced. Through these connections, Mike got to know a number of the employees, including shop foreman Keith Kavelman. Keith was keenly interested in Mike’s GTO and enjoyed talking with Mike about its future restoration, so he expressed an interest in being involved.

Meanwhile Mike was also in the midst of deciding just what kind of restoration he wanted to perform. “I’d been on the fence for a while. Since the ’73 was a weaker performer than cars produced a few years earlier, I’d been strongly considering more of a hot rod approach. Then, through GM Canada I learned that just 231 examples of the ’73 Le Mans were built in Canada with the W62 GTO Performance Package. I also discovered that 4,806 ’73 GTOs were built in total, the lowest number of the entire 1964-’74 vintage run.”

Louvered quarter windows are often thought to be part of the ’73 GTO package, but they’re not. Truth is, the louvered windows are part of the Le Mans Sport Coupe option, which is why Mike was familiar with them back in the late ’70s on his friend’s mother’s Le Mans. Roughly 90 percent of ’73 Le Mans production ordered with the W62 GTO package also came with the W70 Le Mans Sport Coupe option, including Mike’s current car. This means just less than 500 ’73 GTOs were built on the standard Le Mans coupe platform, which had no louvers, and a differently shaped rear quarter window.

Mike then decoded the engine and transmission, confirming that both were the originals. “Once I understood the rarity of the car and verified the original drivetrain, I realized that a stock-type restoration was what the car deserved. That said, I figured I could hide some performance upgrades inside the engine, and that has made the GTO a whole lot more fun.”

In 2005, Mike figured he had the parts needed to get started, and so a call was made to Keith to gauge his true interest in being involved. Keith soon came over to Mike’s place to see the GTO and the assemblage of parts, bringing with him a couple of friends from the dealership: painter Tim Anderson and body man Jim Mlcak. The group was unified in their interest and commitment to a high-end restoration, and a plan was hatched for how to get it done.

It was decided that Keith would lead the project with help from the others. “I had a young family at the time,” says Mike, “and I needed someone who could focus on the project start to finish. We took the car over to Keith’s for the duration of the project, where he began with the teardown, tagging of all parts and fasteners, etc. My role was more of a helper, and I coordinated the blasting of the larger items like the body, frame, and major suspension components, which were stripped by Gemblasters in Chilliwack. I spent plenty of weekend nights up until 4 a.m., glass beading the smaller items just to keep up with Keith. I’d hand a pile of cleaned parts to Keith at the end of the weekend, whereupon he’d either refinish them or send them out for the proper plating.”

Meanwhile, work progressed on the body, and Jim replaced the two rear quarter panels with hard-to-find NOS pieces. Jim worked the body in his off time for close to two years, cutting out and repairing the rust that did exist, and perfecting the lines and gaps to a better-than-factory fit. So detailed were Jim’s efforts, that Mike explained there is little body filler anywhere in the car. Simultaneously, Keith prepared the frame and suspension for reassembly, while Tim painted the items as the necessary prep work was finished.

The drivetrain was typical of a 1973 GTO, meaning a 230-hp 400 four-barrel V-8, backed by a TH400 automatic transmission and optional 3.42 geared Safe-T-Track rear end. Just one other engine was available in the GTO this year, the 250-hp 455—which only made it into about 11 percent of ’73 GTOs, and was available only with the automatic. Three- and four-speed manuals were available only with the 400. The low horsepower output was largely due to a weak compression ratio of barely 8:1, and an emission-friendly cam and carb tuning. Fortunately, Mike saw no reason to limit himself to what the factory offered, if modifications could be adequately hidden or disguised. With this in mind, he brainstormed with Ron’s Engine Machine when it came time to order the rebuild, resulting in a powerplant considerably stouter than it had been in 1973. While the engine remains at 400 cubes, plus a few from the .030-inch overbore, the cam was replaced with a healthy hydraulic roller grind from Comp Cams. The low compression was bumped to 10:25:1, thanks to aftermarket pistons and #48 cylinder-head castings from a ’69 Ram Air III 400 engine. The stock 800-cfm Quadrajet carb was rebuilt by Keith, and lastly, Ram Air Restorations’ exhaust manifolds were used for improved flow, feeding a 2.5-inch exhaust system with X-pipe from the same company.

We’re not sure if the original owner ordered Mike’s ’73 to his liking or found it on the dealer lot. Regardless, we find the combination of Ascot Silver with black top and Rally II wheels to be a great look. Additional options originally included power windows, Custom Sport steering wheel, Rallye gauges, console, rear window defogger, sport mirrors, 3.42 gears, Safe-T-Track differential, and more. While amenities such as these are unlikely to be considered a fair trade for the lower level of performance offered in ’73, it’s said that the 1973-’77 A-bodies actually handle and drive better than the previous generation. The suspension had revised geometry, and we noted that the ’73 GTO package spelled out G60-15 tires on 15 x 7-inch rims, front and rear sway bars, and heavyduty shocks. Frankly, the tire and wheel package alone likely accounted for a good portion of the improved handling.

Mike was fortunate that his GTO had a good interior, because there’s precious little in the way of re-pop items for a ’73. The original dash pad, door panels, console, and other critical trim were cleaned and reused. Carpet is available for the application, but in the absence of reproduction seat covers, Mike turned to Clint and Lydia Zentner at Heart Auto Upholstery in Abbotsford. There, the original seat upholstery was carefully unstitched and taken apart to use as a pattern for the new covers. Clint is also responsible for the new headliner, and teamed with George Ott at Pacific Auto Trim in Vancouver to get this and the vinyl top done in the appropriate sequence.

Final assembly was completed in Keith’s modest garage, and it was a big day in the spring of 2008 when the car was finished and brought back to Mike’s own home. It took roughly two years start to finish, though really, much longer when you consider how long Mike collected parts for the effort. He offered that some of the hardest-to-find pieces were the NOS rear quarter panels, the rocker moldings, and, oddly enough, the rear license-plate lamp assembly.

It’s said that the NACA duct is the most efficient scoop ever designed. Too bad the pair of NACA ducts in the hood of the ’73 GTO weren’t functional [Ed.’s note: Though Pontiac originally intended them to be].

Now, 11 years after completion, the GTO still appears factory fresh, and provides Mike and his family with plenty of entertainment. Mike tells us that it served as the bride and groom’s getaway car for his eldest daughter’s wedding, that his middle daughter enjoys being shuttled to school in it, and that his 14-year-old son is as enamored with the GTO as Mike himself. Mike’s wife Crystal continues to be supportive as always, and is even a good sport when one of the kids calls “shotgun” for the front passenger seat. It’s clear that this GTO is a legit family affair, and a labor of love in the best possible way.

This car has been a dream for me, not only turning out just as I’d hoped, but being something my whole family appreciates. In my mind, it just doesn’t get any better than that! It’s generally driven every week, mostly for local Friday night cruises and weekend family drives to the local burger joint. On average, we’ve rolled about 500 miles onto the odometer each year since the restoration, and it continues to do well at the occasional show I attend. A first-place award for ’68- ’74 hardtops at the 37th Annual GTOAA Nationals may be the proudest moment. In the end, I just want to thank everyone involved in making it happen—you know who you are and I’m deeply appreciative. To Keith Kavelman in particular, I owe this build to you. It simply wouldn’t have been possible without your awesome effort and commitment. Thank you! —Mike Pudsey

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